Overcoming the Politics of Identity in Africa

2012-06-04 08:18

At the opening of the annual Africa Day conference hosted by the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa, Professor Pieter Labuschagne commented on the politics of ethnicity – pointing to the fact that you have over 3000 ethnic groups uncomfortably residing in Africa’s 54 states.

The level of discomfort is clearly evident in the number of ethnic and other identity-based conflicts across the length and breadth of the African continent. These identity conflicts – whether race, ethnicity, religious, or clan – reflect the floundering of the nation-building project on the African continent.

The failure of the nation-state project is seen most dramatically in the issue of secession. Where secession has taken place as in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the two Sudans – intra-state conflict is transformed not into peace but inter-state conflict.

In northern Africa, there are the ongoing tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egpyt. In Morocco conflict persists on the issue of the Saharawis and in Algeria the question of Berber identity is still unresolved. In Nigeria, in West Africa, religious strife between Muslims and Christians are reinforced by their different ethnic and regional identities. Mali has also been torn apart on the issue of a Taureg homeland.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the heart of Africa, remains a conflict-prone area despite the loss of 5 million lives since the 2nd August 1998. Competing identities in a fragile state fuelled by a war economy remains at the heart of this conflict. Here competing ethnic militias like the Hema and Lendu have fought over mineral resources, whilst ethnic groups like the Banyamulenge Tutsis in the eastern Congo see themselves less as Congolese and more as Rwandan as they share the same Tutsi origins with their kin across the border.

Kenya, in eastern Africa, has witnessed the rise of virulent ethnic nationalism between Kikuyu and Luo in the run-up to their last elections. This violent has been temporarily suspended as a result of a political power-sharing agreement brokered. However this agreement looks increasingly shaky as Kenyans hand over suspects in that violence to the International Criminal Court and as the country prepares for elections.

In the Horn of Africa, Somalia represents the quintessential example of where identity politics leads – a balkanized state carved into different clan fiefdoms run by warlords and religious fanatics.

Southern Africa, too, has not escaped this scourge of identity politics. We see it in various forms between Shangaan and Ndau in Mozambique, between Ndebele and Shona in Zimbabwe and between Ovimbundu and Mbundu in Angola.

Whilst ostensibly representing the “Rainbow Nation of God,” South Africa’s nation-building project is also floundering. The xenophobic violence which periodically plagues this country illustrates the point well. We also see it in the charges of racism which the ruling party periodically hurls at the political opposition, civil society, the media, and more recently at artists.

We see it, too, in claims of the “Zulufication” of the African National Congress following Jacob Zuma’s rise to the presidency.

Whilst the African Union attempts to integrate the African continent, whilst some talk of Pan-Africanism, the reality is that one billion Africans increasingly see themselves as belonging to this or that ethnic group, clan, or extol a religious affiliation as opposed to being “Nigerian” or “African”. Until we can build more inclusive states and societies, conflict will persist and the economic potential of this continent will never be unleashed.


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